Seven years ago, I was asked a question I did not know how to answer. “Do you want to hold your baby?”
A labor and delivery nurse usually asks such a question while already in the process of handing a newborn baby to her parent. But my baby was not in the delivery room anymore. So the nurse waited for an answer. And I waited for the right answer to come to mind.
I have had years to think about how a father is supposed to be Daddy to a baby who dies before being born, but I am still learning the answer.
A week before the nurse asked her question, I was dancing with my 18-month-old daughter at a wedding reception, crying at the thought of walking her down the aisle someday. I knew how to be her Daddy. I loved being Daddy. But standing with trembling legs in a hospital not long afterward, I did not know how to be Daddy to my second daughter.
When a baby is in the womb, a father cannot hold, feed or rock his baby to sleep. He is kept waiting until delivery day to comfort his baby with something more than words spoken through a belly. But in the case of a miscarriage, the opportunity to comfort your baby face to face is already gone. The job of Daddy never really begins. It never really ends either.
I knew very little about miscarriages when we lost our baby. We walked into the hospital that day thinking everything was probably fine, so much so we brought our firstborn daughter with us. An overnight bag was not even a consideration.
Our heart rates did not pick up until a Doppler could not find our baby’s heart rate. By the time a more sophisticated ultrasound machine was wheeled into our curtain-enclosed area of triage, I knew as much as you can about miscarriages in an hour of searching the Internet on a phone. But I still had so much more to learn, the hard way.
Miscarriages usually occur in the first trimester, but they can happen up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. The odds of having a miscarriage decrease with each passing week, but they did not decrease enough for us. My brother came to pick up our 18-month-old, and we were transferred to a delivery room.
It was surreal being back in a delivery room, where we’d had such a joyous experience less than two years prior. The room looked the same, clean and camera-ready for a celebratory occasion. But this time the visits from nurses were less frequent. Conversations were solemn. And nobody was outside our room waiting with balloons, at least not for us.
When our baby was finally delivered, I wanted to vomit. I wanted to rid myself of all the emotions that were erupting in the pit of my stomach. But I could not even do that, much less hold back tears any longer.
There was no life outside the womb to flash before my baby’s eyes, so it flashed through mine. I mourned the days I would never have to teach her how to write her name, pick her up when she fell off a bike, walk her down a wedding aisle or meet her in a delivery room to hold her children. But despite the sorrow, somehow my love for her was growing.
It was in this state of sorrow and longing that I had to answer the nurse’s question about whether I wanted to hold our baby. It was an option I did not know existed until that moment, while I was still struggling to comprehend the events that had just unfolded.
Nothing on the Internet told me that when you deliver a miscarried baby, nurses clean and dress your baby. I did not know they take pictures of your baby in a pink cap with a flower on it for you to take home. I was not prepared for a nurse to ask me if I wanted to make funeral arrangements. And I certainly did not know that while our baby was being dressed in another room, a nurse would ask me if I wanted to hold our baby.
Of course, I wanted to hold my baby. She was my daughter. I was her Daddy. I wanted to hold her more than anything in the world. I still want to hold her.
But I said no.
In that moment, my wife needed the comfort I could not give to our baby. She needed to be held. And bringing our baby back into the room would only begin the emotional devastation again. Was that the right decision? I still do not know.
So how was I supposed to be Daddy to this baby girl?
Another nurse asked if our daughter had a name. She did not. We did not know she was a girl until that day. As little as it is, the best I could do to honor my daughter was not to give her a name. She meant too much to give her a name blurted out in a stupor of sorrow.
Despite being what’s known as a parenting blogger, I have never spoken more than what I write here to anyone about our miscarriage, much less written about it. Fathers are characterized as being poor at expressing sadness and loss to others. But I know more fathers need to talk about their experiences with miscarriages. They need to tell others you can still be Daddy to a baby who is lost before he or she is born. Fathers also need to know it is an event that does not need to be locked away in their memory.
The memory does not go away. And that is a good thing. It is how we can continue to be Daddy to our lost children. And likewise, our lost children continue to be a blessing.
In our case, our baby is more than a memory. She alerted doctors to a blood disorder my wife has. We have two more sons who were born safely, thanks to the daughter we lost. She is their unsung hero.
One day, I will tell them about their sister and how she helped them. I will also tell them how their mom, oldest sister and I watched their other sister on an ultrasound machine while she was still healthy. She moved and danced as if she was trying to make us proud. We are still proud.
Chris Cate is a writer based in Tallahassee. Find him on Twitter @ChrisCate.